Thursday, 5 June 2008

"The car has become the new political frontline"

35 years ago, in his seminal essay The Social Ideology of the Motorcar, André Gorz pointed out that motorcars worked fine as long as most people didn't possess one:

The worst thing about cars is that they are like castles or villas by the sea: luxury goods invented for the exclusive pleasure of a very rich minority, and which in conception and nature were never intended for the people. Unlike the vacuum cleaner, the radio, or the bicycle, which retain their use value when everyone has one, the car, like a villa by the sea, is only desirable and useful insofar as the masses don't have one. That is how in both conception and original purpose the car is a luxury good. And the essence of luxury is that it cannot be democratised. If everyone can have luxury, no one gets any advantages from it.

Martin Jacques -- not somebody I always find myself in agreement with -- comes back to this theme in an interesting Grauniad piece today. He suggests that the motorcar in today's society is not so much an occasionally useful piece of machinery as a fashion item, a piece of showing-off bling, and a political weapon:

The streets around here are crawling with SUVs, usually driven by women, often with a mobile glued to their ear, whose attitude towards other roadusers can best be described as f*ck you. The size, high centre of gravity, and frontal attachments of their SUVs represent a serious threat to cars, cyclists and pedestrians alike. That is why they are popular. They represent a new kind of middle-class aggression, a form of urban warfare in an era when the rich have become unashamedly richer and desperately anxious to flaunt the fact.

Echoing André Gorz, he goes on to note:

Where once cars were a symbol of mobility and freedom, now they are – except in the surreal world of car advertising – a passport to traffic jams and congestion. When cars were for the minority, they could enjoy the freedom of the roads, but when they became the mode of transport for a large majority, there was simply not enough road space to go around and they increasingly became a form of confinement.

The heyday of the private motorcar, then, has passed; all the more so as its fuel becomes increasingly scarce and expensive. Getting people to acknowledge this fact may take a little longer, especially as long as so much media exposure is given to reactionary nincompoops like Jeremy Clarkson, whom Jacques describes as "the embodiment not just of what is wrong with the car but also of what is wrong with so much in society".

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